Ulitsa Sezam Sparks Creative Expression in Russia
In September 2006, a crowd of children gathered in Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery to meet Zeliboba, Businka, and Kubic, three international Muppets from the locally-produced Russian version of Sesame Street, Ulitsa Sezam.
The children and their parents had come to the world-famous Russian fine arts museum to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Ulitsa Sezam, a co-production with DIXI-TV that premiered in 1996 with funding from USAID, the Open Society Institute, and Nestlé Russia.
To mark the occasion, the Tretyakov Gallery held a children’s art exhibition, devoting the entire entrance wing of the immense museum to the children’s artwork. In the pieces that covered the museum’s walls, children had drawn themselves, their families, pets, friends – and the Ulitsa Sezam cast.
“It was the perfect self-esteem booster for any child,” says Sesame Workshop associate producer Estee Bardanashvili.
In one corner of the gallery, an animator led a creative art workshop, working with children to make flowers and pictures for lively three-year-old Businka and neckties with zany patterns for Zeliboba, who has a tie collection that he hangs reverently in his own tie museum.
Encouraging uninhibited creativity
The Tretyakov Gallery event built on a regular art segment featured on Ulitsa Sezam, which Businka hosts. In the segment, she shows paintings and drawings that children have sent her from all over Russia, and sings songs about her love for art.
Bardanashvili explains that sparking children’s interest in artistic and creative expression is one of Ulitsa Sezam’s primary educational goals.
“In terms of the importance of art, in Russia it is extremely high on everyone’s mind. It’s a cultural society so they start educating children in the arts at an early stage,” she says.
Through Businka’s art segment, the show encourages children to develop an uninhibited sense of creativity as they play with art.
“The idea was to foster a kid being willing to sit down and think outside the box,” says Sesame Workshop producer Basia Nikonorow.
This focus on arts and creativity sprang from a curriculum seminar with teachers and child education specialists, who pointed out that children seemed to be held back by rules of how a picture “should” look.
“Through Businka, we were trying to say ‘all types of art are valid. Make your big Van Gogh flower, make a house that’s kind of abstract,’” Nikonorow says.
The inspiration for Businka’s art segment came from Sesame Street Muppet Prairie Dawn’s art show, which was featured in Play With Me Sesame and also showcased viewers’ artwork. Each one of Prairie Dawn’s art show segments is grouped thematically, featuring artwork painted in one particular color or focusing on the different ways that children paint one subject.
Some of Ulitsa Sezam’s live action films also incorporate the arts and creativity focus as they tell stories from various regions in Russia, and Nikonorow points out that Russian storytelling tends to be very visual and poetic.
“There’s a very strong film tradition in Russia, a storytelling with pictures … where you tell a story much more with pictures than with words.”
The live action films show children from all over Russia, as well as in several neighboring countries including Armenia, Georgia, and Uzbekistan. Producers decided to tape films in other countries in order to portray ethnicities that have large populations in Russia. Nikonorow explains that in doing so, Ulitsa Sezam “shows people in their native environments, but without the baggage often associated with immigrant status.”
One film, set in remote Siberia, shows a little boy visiting his grandfather, who is teaching him how to lasso reindeer’s antlers and helping him practice on a pole.
The show also dealt directly with the subject of adoption — largely rejected in Russia — featuring a film about a girl who lives in an orphanage.
Experimenting with a more realistic set
When the show’s fourth season launched, it was with a new set reflecting a more realistic depiction of modern-day urban Russia. Designers Leonid Svintsitskii and Irina Alekseeva designed the set, focusing their redesign around a courtyard with a look and feel typical of those found all over Russian cities.
DIXI-TV executive producer Yana Shelygina explains that Svintsitskii chose the courtyard because “anyone can recognize it and identify with it. But of course alongside that, it is also a little bit magical; it is not a reflection of socialist realism, it’s a creative vision.”
An intact oak tree grows in the center of this courtyard, and windows from surrounding houses face each other so neighbors can pop their heads out of windows to greet one another. This typically Russian setup speaks to a way that children grow up, being given the independence to spend time in the courtyard but with the security of neighbors looking out for each other’s children.
The set also includes a creative art center and a playground with an urban backdrop of buildings that “was made grittier, a bit grey, with Khrushchev-style buildings in the background,” Nikonorow says.
Shelygina admits that working on the show was not always easy, saying that it can be a very long process with many different components. An overwhelmingly positive response from children balanced it all out for her, though – and also took her by surprise.
“The charge of positivity that you get within the work process, when afterwards you hear or see how children react to Ulitsa Sezam — that is really wonderful,” she says.